Fixing the Dallas Cowboys’ rushing attack for 2022

The Dallas Cowboys' rushing attack struggled down the stretch last season. What steps can they take to avoid that in 2022?

The Dallas Cowboys‘ rushing attack is never too far from fans’ minds, and that is by design. Owner and self-appointed general manager Jerry Jones brings up its importance every chance he gets to speak publicly about his football team. But last season, the Cowboys went from the seventh-ranked rushing success rate in Weeks 1-9 to the seventh-worst during Weeks 10-18.

The focus is always on the handsomely-paid Ezekiel Elliott, who now enters his seventh NFL season. Dallas’ rushing attack was outstanding through the first few weeks of the year but then got stale quickly midway through the season. From Weeks 7-16, Elliott didn’t top 52 yards once and only averaged over five yards per carry in one outing.

So what happened to the Cowboys’ rushing attack, and how can they combat that in 2022?

Dallas Cowboys’ rushing attack faltered in 2021

A single issue can rarely derail an entire football team, and the Cowboys’ rushing attack from a season ago is no different. But unlike other organizations that bob and weave like Floyd Mayweather in the ring to avoid compounding issues, the Cowboys decided to take Rocky Balboa’s approach.

They allowed themselves to get punched in the face repeatedly, even though they were already overmatched by their opponents, both from a talent perspective and a schematic one. How did the Cowboys accomplish that?

Well, by continuing to feed Elliott the ball repeatedly after Week 4 when he partially tore his PCL. Before the injury, Elliott had looked his best since his 2016 rookie season. His burst was back after fighting through overfeeding, and minor injuries piled up throughout the years.

But it was evident midway through the season that Elliott wasn’t moving the way he had in the first few weeks. And despite his apparent physical issues, he finished the season with 107 more carries than Tony Pollard.

The Cowboys played with seven different offensive line units throughout the season, and continuity was an issue after Tyron Smith’s injury in Week 8 kept him out until Week 12. The Cowboys couldn’t find the right combination, culminating in an embarrassing effort against the 49ers’ front seven in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.

But Elliott’s injury and the offensive line issues weren’t the only problems with the rushing attack. For as imaginative as Kellen Moore can be, his rushing attack far too often lacks the creativity that gives modern ground games an edge over defenses.

Motion and the run game

Over the past few seasons, there’s been a working theory that motion at the snap of the ball is an advantage for offenses. ESPN’s Seth Walder has kept an eye out on this, and in 2021 the tables turned, showing an overall negative EPA-per-play value with motion at the snap compared to a static look.

Since 2017, motion at the snap on run plays has tripled, and with that has come, as Walder describes it, “an equilibrium.” Maybe we’ve arrived at the midline, or maybe we should proceed with caution until there’s a large enough sample size to suggest one way or another definitively.

Cowboys fans know all too well what motion can do to the opposition. They were on the receiving end of it against the Los Angeles Rams in 2018. It can cause miscommunications with defensive checks and have linebackers flowing in the wrong direction.

The Cowboys don’t use it, and that’s okay

Dallas ranked just 24th in motion at the snap, using it on just 9.5% of their offensive snaps. While those may be rookie numbers that need to be pumped up, the top 10 most efficient rushing attacks in the NFL last season had little overlap with the teams who used motion at the snap most often. Only the Chiefs, 49ers, and Seahawks finished inside the top 10 in both categories.

There’s this narrative around Dallas’ season that they had some magical answer schematically in the run game early on that they abandoned. But that’s not true. They didn’t stop sending CeeDee Lamb in jet motion to influence opposing linebackers because they never really did that to begin with.

Fixing the Cowboys’ rushing attack

Now, for the fun (nerdy) part. We need answers about fixing the Cowboys’ issues from a season ago and finding an identity in the run game. Only 65 of Elliott’s 237 rushing attempts went outside of the tackles. Only 37 of Pollard’s 130 carries did the same. And A gap runs were quite prevalent.

Dallas needs to get the ball to the edges more often. They also need to introduce more variety into the interior runs and give the healthier runner the ball a bit more often than they did last season. And they also need to let Lamb carry the ball more often. He’s averaged 8.3 yards per attempt on 19 career carries.

But let’s get into the details.

Introducing tosses to interior runs

This is the 49ers’ Weak LT Ace Toss 14 Wanda F Sift. It’s a split zone run meant for the play-side B gap, but in practice, it can often end up creating a wind-back like the above video. The toss gets Leighton Vander Esch scraping incredibly hard to meet the back outside the tackle.

That momentum carries the entire Cowboys’ front seven toward the edge, which creates a lane to the backside. The result is a nice nine-yard run. Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and Terence Steele are an athletic group of linemen who would have no issues playing more on the move with outside rushes and the power game.

Getting the ball outside of the tackles

It’s not exactly Snug RT 18 Alert Oscar, but it’s close enough. Having receivers willing to simply get in the way of larger defenders for a second allows the linemen to get to space and force defensive backs into business decisions. Elliott’s highest yards-per-carry mark was rushing outside of the tackle going right. Both of Pollard’s highest were off the left and right end, where he averaged over seven yards per carry in each direction.

And pairing more outside runs with those interior tosses creates a seed of doubt in the minds of both first- and second-level defenders.

Using interesting personnel groupings

Take the above play, for instance. The Cowboys could accomplish that result in various ways by using a fullback. First, they could do what they often did last season and insert Connor McGovern at fullback. But they could also use Elliott as the upback and Pollard as the halfback. In the video above, Elliott can make the block Kyle Juszczyk did on an edge rusher.

Last season, Dallas produced an EPA of 0.13 (stat courtesy of @CowboysStats on Twitter) when McGovern was on the field at the same time as Zack Martin and Connor Williams. For reference, the Colts were the top rushing team in 2021 with a 0.065 rushing EPA. Dallas had 62 plays with that combination in 2021. It was incredibly effective.

But that’s not it. Pollard could be crucial to the Cowboys’ offense, particularly early in the season as Dallas once again battles against injuries to the receiving corps. Dallas could ride with a heavy dose of 21 personnel early on to try and create mismatches.

If defenses try to defend them in base, they could use Pollard in the slot or isolated on the outside as a receiver matched up against a linebacker. Pollard caught 104 passes in his three seasons at Memphis and could be used similarly if he and Prescott can find a rapport before the season begins.

Suppose teams decide to play them with nickel personnel on defense. In that case, the Cowboys could use pre-snap motion to try and pull linebackers out of the box to follow Elliott before bringing Pollard into the backfield to become the runner, which forces a defensive back into the box.

According to Sharp Football Analysis, the Cowboys rushing attack was only in 21 personnel for 26 offensive snaps (2%). Pollard only received the ball on this jet motion four times all season. Pollard’s explosiveness and Elliott’s blocking ability could be a massive benefit to the Cowboys’ rushing attack on occasion.

As offenses start spreading out further and further, defenses have gotten smaller and faster. This has reintroduced the effectiveness of the fullback. The Ravens and 49ers have used fullbacks with great effectiveness for years. Baltimore also has Lamar Jackson to help, but the 49ers have dealt with an immobile Jimmy Garoppolo for years in their offense.

Using Lamb in the Cowboys’ rushing attack

It doesn’t get much easier than this for the Cowboys’ rushing attack. The Chargers remain in a two-high shell as Dallas spreads the field. They go four-over-three to the field and two-over-one to the boundary, leaving only five defenders truly in the box.

Coming out of Oklahoma, one of Lamb’s calling cards was his ability after the catch. While the 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver is not Deebo Samuel and should not be used in the same manner, Lamb should touch the ball on the ground a few times each game out of the backfield or while in jet or orbit motion.

Keep Elliott fresh and healthy

Whether one agrees with it or not, Elliott is the focal point of the Cowboys’ rushing attack. The Jones family has made that abundantly clear throughout the years, and Jerry did so again in July.

But instead of using the Rocky method, bashing their skull into the fists of their opponents, Dallas needs to make the backfield a proper committee.

The above video was a healthy Elliott early in the season with a healthy offensive line against a top-10 defense. The first cut as he’s handed the ball is nice, but the flexibility he showed to peel back into the middle of the defense was most impressive. It was also evident that he didn’t have that burst or bend after the injury.

Obviously, the Cowboys want to get their money’s worth with Elliott. But wouldn’t having him as healthy as possible during the playoff push be a better use of his stamina? Last season, Pollard averaged 5.5 yards per carry to Elliott’s 4.2.

Sure, one could try to argue that when Elliott is on the field, the defense is more prone to expect and try to defend the run vigorously. But that doesn’t change their production. And despite carrying the ball 107 fewer times, Pollard forced 27 missed tackles to Elliott’s 19.

Pollard will never start, nor will he ever see the bulk of offensive snaps. That conversation is a non-starter. But if Elliott gets injured again and Dallas decides to hamstring themselves again by leaving the less effective back on the field, it will be because of the money and nothing more.

But as Cowboys fans, that’s just the way of life, isn’t it?

Can the Cowboys’ rushing attack improve? Yes. First-round pick Tyler Smith should help that. But the Cowboys could also, and probably will for a spell, lose Tyron Smith to injury at some point this season. They can mitigate the loss by using motion, misdirection, interesting personnel groupings, and receiver runs to keep the defense guessing.

But will they? Only time will tell.

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